Data is MAGIC

This week has been quite insane, as was last week.  I’ve had little time to give to thinking about Epcot, or Disney, or pretty much anything that wasn’t related to work or the purchase of our soon-to-be-new-house.  Who decides to buy a house in the middle of the holidays, in the north, in winter?  Are you sure you really want to read something written by someone who would do something like that? 

Since I’ve been thinking about work a lot, I’ll talk about something that relates work with Disney.  Data.  Wait, come back!  Don’t click away just yet!  This could end up interesting to more than just me, I swear.

A few caveats to begin with. 

1)      This is not specifically about Epcot, it’s Walt Disney World and Disney as a whole.

2)      I’ll be doing what I do best, speaking about things as if I am an expert, some of which I am not an expert on

3)      I won’t however be speaking from a place of no expertise.  In fact, my job title includes the words “Data” and “Expert”.  I swear, I get paid real, honest money to work with data, and to play around in the areas that I’ll be speaking of.  As I was writing this, I was extracting just under a billion rows of data from a table and putting it into Hadoop.

The past few years in Disney World have brought one of the biggest investments in the parks in quite a long time.  Depending on who’s estimates you believe, somewhere between $1.1 billion and $700 billion (only slight exaggeration) was invested in what some people refer to as a plastic handcuff.  The MagicBand.

Is this a device of pure evil?

Is this a device of pure evil?

Now, I’m not going to spend the rest of the column discussing the benefits of the MagicBand itself, nor am I going to speak about FastPass +, or most of the user-facing My Disney Experience app.  To me, those are negligible.  Sure, I’ve had great experiences with my band, and I could wax philosophic on the changes to the park-going experience that Disney has started, and where it might go.  That will not be this blog post however.

As the title of this post says, this is about data.  As you may know, the MagicBands contain RFID transmitters.  These allow Disney to track and collect information from your band at any time you are within range of one of their reading devices.  They have short ranged and long ranged readers.  They are collecting data on their visitors at an insane rate.  The mind boggles at the thought of the size of their hadoop clusters.

What I don’t think has been talked about nearly enough is the absolute goldmine that this data is for Disney.  I think that there is a lot of concern about the data collection, “why do they want to watch my every move?”, “Are they going to sell my data?”.  I’m not talking about that for the most part.  Is there a potential that some very limited pieces of your data could be sold to external companies?  Probably, but I’d be willing to bet that has been happening for a decade or more.  MagicBands did not bring this on.

I mean of course the value of the vast amounts of data that they are collecting to Disney themselves.  When Disney first announced the MagicBands, I didn’t take a lot of time to think about what this data could really mean to the company.  That’s because my data work was fairly standard.  I was pulling together large amounts of data for a living, but for some fairly standard purposes.  Feeding data to applications, getting data for managerial reports, working on master data management, architecture, etc.

Last year however I stumbled on a role that put me in a new position, one that really has opened my eyes.  That is working for a research and analytics department, side-by-side with a bunch of data scientists. 

What’s a data scientist?  Great question.  When you find out, please comment!  Only sort of kidding.  The definition of “data science” is wide and varied.  I think if you asked 100 data scientists, you’d get 100 different answers.  In my mind, it’s someone who applies the rigor of the scientific method to data analysis.  They do experiments, they try and eliminate bias from their experiments and results, they build statistical and learning models to try and predict things in the future, or prescribe different actions based on (provable) trends found in data.  I’m not a data scientist, I don’t play one on TV, and I didn’t stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night.  I do however work with them, I manage them, and I learn each and every day from them.  These are some insanely smart people.  Let me add a statement that sounds very humblebraggy, but two of the data scientists that report to me are PhD astrophysicists.  Ohhhhh, ain’t I special?

What does this have to do with a MagicBand?  Well, I’m making some assumptions here, since I do not work for Disney, nor do I know anyone who worked on the system that was put in place when they were building this NextGen project.  Still, I can take my years of business experience and make some educated guesses.  I can guess what they likely could be collecting, I make some wild ideas of what they might want to use it for, and then I can also assume that not everything was built to perfection, because what system is?

Still, let’s go over a little about what kinds of data Disney now has access to. 

They have your personal information.  Standard demographic stuff, your age, family, home address, and who knows what else they buy in terms of external data.  

They have your accommodation preferences.  They know via your travel history what resorts you like to visit, when you like to visit them, what promotions or marketing activities might have led you to book your trip. 

They have your restaurant preferences.  What dining establishments you like to visit, what you make dining reservations for, when and how you make them.  How often you change them, how often you “shop” for new times, or restaurants that might be full.  If you use your MagicBand to pay, or use the dining plan, they know your food preferences.  They can likely link your band id to the point of sale system and see exactly what you ordered. 

They know when you book your fastpasses, what attractions you choose, how often you change plans, how you change your plans (smartphone or kiosk), how often you make your fastpass time, how often you miss it. 

They know your social media presence if you've linked your Disney account.  They can get picture data that you've tagged to Disney, or tweeted with hashtags.  

Some of this they could have gotten before of course, and likely had, though in disparate systems, mostly unable to talk to each other without massive complex IT efforts.

What they have added to this now though is your positional information and time-based information.  They know how you tour the park.  Do you typically start your day going directly to a ride, do you wander the shops on the way, do you reride attractions, and if so, how do you do that.  They know where you stop to rest, if you go to shows, if you see parades, how early you get to your spot for the fireworks.  I’m not sure if they do this, but they could easily extend this to the resorts.  They could know when you leave your room in the morning, when you enter again at night.  How long you wait for Disney transportation.  How early you arrive for check-in and check-out.  What amenities you use.  If you resort-hop for dining or shopping. 

They can link your MagicBand purchases, or your credit card purchases to every sale made on property.  They can know what you buy, what you don’t, when you buy it, where you buy it.  How long you spend in each store, how you travel through the store, what makes you stop, what makes you move along.  How long you'll wait for a meet and greet, an ice cream bar, a bathroom.

All together, that sounds terrifying doesn’t it? 

Someone get this guy some Mouse Ears, STAT

Someone get this guy some Mouse Ears, STAT

I assure you, it isn’t.  Why?

Because, they are not looking at you individually.  They are looking at you collectively.  All of you, all visitors.  They are not using your data individually to do specific things, there is just too darn much of it.  They can however take massive groups of this data and create predictive models out of it.  Then can then use these models to predict, well, just about everything. 

Ride wait times can become much more precise, and predictable.  This can help not just the guests, but Disney operationally in terms of staffing and managing fastpass return times.  They can model and simulate an entire day at a park, look ahead to predict problems before they happen, bottlenecks that can be preemptively handled.  They can more accurately predict how many hot dogs that Casey’s will sell, not just by looking at historical trends, but by taking the historical trends along with the kinds of guests visiting, the temperature, the weather, the price of gas, annual pass usage rates, and they can predict down to a very close error exactly how many hot dogs should be sold on a given day.    

The list can go on and on.  They can optimize their Mousekeeping staff by knowing exactly when certain rooms will be empty and ready to clean and deploying their staff accordingly.  They can predict when a buildup of people might cause problems for Disney Transportation and might need to shift extra busses, and they can predict this in the morning, not after it’s already happened.   Is a person’s social media usage predictive of their likelihood to visit a park on a certain day?  If so, can monitoring social media trends help look for patterns that have not been noticed yet?   Does a persons proclivity to spend vast amounts of time in The Tiki Room predict the amount of time they will spend in Future World, or how much they'll spend in Star Wars merchandise?

So many things, I could sit here all day and try and think of all the things they can do with their data that does not invade on personal privacy, yet provides a better guest experience.  Is Disney trying to find ways to separate you from your money with this data?  Sure!  Is it bad if they are doing it in a way that makes you happy and satisfied?  I honestly don’t think so.  Oh noes, Disney made money off of making me happy!  How evil!

If a company can better predict problems, provide a superior guest experience, all while cutting costs, it’s hard not to get excited about it.  Well, I guess if you are the type of person who gets excited about data, like I am.  If not, let it float away, it’s nothing you have to worry about.  Wear your MagicBands, give your data over to Disney, and let them use your leisurely stroll through World Showcase fill their Hadoop clusters full of data that will allow Disney to continue to break new ground in using big data to improve their parks.  The data won’t care if you like it or not, it’s all just 1s and 0s anyway.